Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935 by Janet Catherine Berlo

A profound sense of history has long compelled Indian peoples of the Great Plains of North America to chronicle their lives pictorially. From images inscribed on rock walls to narrative scenes on buffalo hide robes and tipis, personal history was made public, for all to see. In some nations, historical accounts were inscribed pictorially in "winter counts" - records of what happened last winter, and the winter before that, extending back for decades, or even centuries. Such images helped preserve that history for future generations.

As the 19th century progressed, Plains men adopted a new, smaller-scale medium for their pictorial histories: they began to draw on paper, using pens, pencils, and watercolor. These new mediums were provided by explorers and traders early in the century, and by military men and Indian agents in the second half of the century. The white men who trickled across the continent and up the great rivers in the 1830s and '40s became an unstoppable flood tide of soldiers and settlers after 1860. Their presence changed Plains Indian life irrevocably.

The first Native histories of those profound changes occur in the drawings made by Plains men. The large bound ledger book - a pedestrian item used for inventory by traders and military officers - was appropriated by Indian artists as a new drawing surface. Autograph books, sketchbooks, note paper, recycled stationery, and other paper materials were used as well. Sometimes pencils and notebooks were among the goods exchanged in trade; sometimes they were part of the plunder taken from white soldier's bodies on battlefields. Drawings made with these new materials represented both a continuation of traditional male representational and historical arts and a new avenue for exploration. While continuing to record personal and tribal history, they also provided an artistic record of the changes occurring in indigenous life. Drawings in books and on sheets of paper also served as an important medium of intercultural communication. Drawings were a common meeting ground for those few whites trying to build bridges of understanding with the Native people of the Great Plains.